One of the beautiful things about the game of Survivor is that it allows for people to tap into themselves and pull out some truly amazing things. Over the course of its long history, the show has seen its share of greatness on the screen and has given us some moments and characters that we still talk about to this day. From Richard Hatch’s legendary first win to Adam Klein’s emotional victory in Millennials vs Gen X, each season has given us great moments.
That’s why for the final themed article of the season, it only makes sense to talk about greatness and how we once again saw it in play during the finale of Survivor: Game Changers. First and foremost, Sarah Lacina and her winning game. Throughout the season, Sarah showed herself to be a great Survivor player. She was able to read situations almost perfectly every time, she flipped between alliances freely while avoiding major blowback and she capitalized on advantages within the game better than almost any Survivor player ever. At the end of the game, at final tribal council, she articulated her moves clearly, won the jury’s respect and the decision was never really in question. People may not like it but Sarah was a dominant strategic force and her winning the season ensured that the best player would also be its representative. Think of her as a female Yul Kwon, maybe not the most dynamic character but one of the more brilliant minds to ever play the game.
Of course, credit must also be given to Brad Culpepper. He showed greatness at almost every single individual immunity challenge. To receive the necklace five times puts him on a legendary level that only Colby Donaldson, Tom Westman, Terry Deitz, Ozzy Lusth and Mike Holloway have reached. With Mike being the possible exception due to only playing once so far, those guys are some of the most revered Survivor players of all-time. After what was a tough time and an even worse edit his first time around in Blood vs Water, Brad was able to show this season that he had a place in Survivor lore and his immunity streak made sure to prove it. Like a Terry or an Ozzy, Brad was not the most strategic player and it ultimately cost him the game like it did for both men (twice on Ozzy’s account) but surviving the game is one of Survivor’s most important aspects and in that sense, Brad Culpepper was great.
With Sarah and Brad out of the way, this allows me to get to the most important part of the finale. If we are talking about greatness, there are few Survivor players that can even sniff Cirie Fields’ legacy. Hopefully it wasn’t, but if the Game Changers finale was the last hurrah for Cirie on Survivor, it was certainly bittersweet. Most big name players have their share of fans and detractors. Boston Rob is hugely popular but also has more haters than the majority of players. Sandra Diaz-Twine is a controversial character in Survivor lore between those who think she is the greatest and those who think her wins were very convincing. With Cirie, she is almost universally loved.
Part of why Cirie is so adored is that she is one of the most well-rounded characters the show has ever cast. Cirie is one of the best strategic players we have ever seen but she is also a real person that has been given a large amount of personal growth. We have followed her story since Survivor: Exile Island and that was more than a decade ago. Cirie has gone from the woman who was scared of leaves and had never gone camping to a deity in the Survivor universe because of her charm, personality and unassuming smile.
It doesn’t hurt that her Survivor journey has given us some of the show’s best moments. Cirie orchestrated one of the earliest complex votes when she ousted Courtney Merit with the 3-2-1 vote in Panama. In Micronesia, Cirie showed off some of the flashiest gameplay we had ever seen and was a huge contributor in blindsiding Ozzy and Jason Siska. When Erik Reichenbach gave up his immunity necklace, that was Cirie’s plan set in motion and she was the biggest cog in making it work. If Micronesia is often looked at as the season that really started pushing the narrative for blindsides and big moves then Cirie has to be credited for a lot of how the game looks in its current iteration. Heroes vs Villains was short-lived for Cirie because she was too threatening but it allowed her to slip under the radar and bide her time until Game Changers.
This season, we saw a lot of the Micronesia Cirie at work. After Sarah flipped on them and left her in the minority, Cirie didn’t stop working. She was able to regain control of a majority alliance and managed its pieces despite conflicting egos wanting to constantly turn on each other. She had tight bonds with Michaela Bradshaw, Andrea Boelkhe and Sarah while keeping each of them at arm’s length of each other. She nearly orchestrated the biggest move in Survivor history when she attempted to use Sarah’s own vote steal against her only to be foiled by, as Thailand’s Robb Zbacnick would tell us, “a bunch of rules”. Even then, when the move backfired and they got back to camp, Cirie was able to wiggle her way out of trouble by getting Tai Trang to openly admit to Sarah that he was targeting her and that Cirie was trying to save Sarah. Nobody else could pull off that kind of wizardry to avoid being targeted for a betrayal. Cirie Fields is one of a kind.
Unfortunately, as is usually the case for Cirie, something went slightly awry and caused her downfall. If the world were a fair place, Cirie would already be a Survivor winner but it hasn’t panned out. Never has she been voted out in a conventional manner. In Panama she lost a fire making tie breaker at the final four. In Micronesia, she was all set to make the final three when a surprise final two, the first since her own original season in Panama, lead to her becoming the final member of the jury. In Heroes vs Villains, JT and Tom had to work some idol magic to get her out of the game. This season, Cirie was voted out while never receiving a single vote against her throughout the entire game. It took a plethora of advantages all coming out at the same time to leave her as the sole person not to carry immunity.
The way Cirie went out was tough to swallow. The game of Survivor was originally a social experiment and the idea was that one needed to create bonds to Survive each round. Cirie did that to the moon and back. She was not even a target during the round she was booted, having once again received no votes. Her ouster was not because she failed at one of the basic tenants of Survivor but because she was the unlucky one who didn’t manage to find a producer manufactured advantage.
On the flip side, her boot continues to confirm Cirie’s greatness. The tribe didn’t actually speak when she was kicked off; there was simply no other option. She wasn’t outsmarted by anyone on the island, her boot was not because she was blindsided by an ally; she was just the only one left. We can now say that Cirie went a whole season without having a vote cast against her and that she was still very tangibly in the running to win Game Changers. Like Malcolm Freberg or Sandra before her, Cirie’s boot does not tarnish her legacy and for an All-Stars season, fans can always be thankful of that.
Additionally, while it was tough to watch her go out the way she did, everything about the boot itself was handled beautifully. Jeff Probst can be a lightning rod of criticism for Survivor fans but I felt that in respect to Cirie’s vote-off, he was poised. The way he spoke so reverently of Cirie’s legacy and how he was honored to have seen her play was beautiful and from the heart. Cirie’s graceful acceptance of her fate was to be expected from someone as classy as her, but nonetheless great to see. Jeff asking her to say his catch phrase as he snuffed her touch was the perfect touch to send Cirie on her way.
As I said earlier, hopefully this is not the last we see of Cirie Fields. Of the four time players, she is the only one who would be universally lauded were she to come back for a fifth time. Survivor fans do not get sick of watching her play. That said, if this is how her Survivor career is capped off, at least she was sent out into the sunlight and I can truly say that over 11 years and four seasons, it has been the most wonderful experience to watch Cirie play the game of Survivor. She may not be a winner in the books but she will always be a winner in my eyes. As she told us in the opening episode of Heroes vs Villains, “I’m a gangster in an Oprah suit” and time after time, she has proven that to be true. Congratulations to Sarah and Brad but the true greatness that came out of the Game Changers finale was Cirie Fields and I think everyone can agree with that.